By now you’ve heard about the death of Frank Fontana, universally known as ‘Uncle Frank’ throughout optometry. Many of us who were close to him—and that’s hundreds of people at least— are taking it pretty hard. Because Uncle Frank truly did feel like a member of the family.
To give just one example, Uncle Frank used to call me every month when he received his copy of Review of Optometry. We’d chat about the topics in the issue, and sometimes he would recommend new authors for us to try. But mostly he was calling to tell me I was doing a good job. Honestly, that was the reason for his call. I’ve been a professional medical editor for 27 years, so you could say I’m pretty well settled into the career by now. But Uncle Frank wanted to make sure I felt good about myself. That’s what close relatives do, if you’re lucky enough to have them in your life. Optometry certainly did.
People who don’t have good relationships with their families will often comment that you can pick your friends but not your relatives. The wonderful thing about Uncle Frank is that he did pick his relatives. He made so many people feel like we were a part of a vast, extended family—and it was entirely his choice to make that a priority in his life. That speaks volumes about his character, and it’s a big part of why we all will miss him so much.
He was also indefatigable about being involved in the optometry profession. Uncle Frank continued to see patients a few mornings a week, and he attended all the major conferences. People half his age start to weary of the travel grind and try to cut back. Not Uncle Frank. He needed to be a part of it, always. He even made it a point to always attend this magazine’s editorial board meetings—a two-hour session that starts at 7am. As someone who had already made his mark before most of the other board members had been born, he cast a long shadow over our discussions.
It seems fitting that Frank Fontana passed away at Vision Expo West, in effect dying on the job. Because the job—being an optometrist—was his life. You may even notice that he is quoted in this very issue of the magazine, in the article about private equity buyouts beginning on page 48. He truly never stopped working for optometry.
Those monthly phone conversations I had with Uncle Frank were a welcome relief from the day-to-day stresses of a busy job. I would see a St. Louis phone number come up on my office phone and it would make me smile. One of the toughest things for me to accept since the news of his passing is realizing that’ll never happen again. Everyone whose lives were touched by Frank Fontana will have holes like that from now on. After this issue mails and readers start receiving copies, I’ll probably feel a little anxious for a few days, not knowing what to do.
Maybe I’ll call my own nephew. It’s been too long. Uncle Frank would appreciate that. The best way to honor someone is to be changed for the better by having known them.